Friday, July 25, 2014

Political Paper: Offense-Defense Theory

A paper I wrote for school: December 16, 2013

Examining Offense-Defense Theory

            The study of war is an important and consequential undertaking that can help us understand how and why conflicts arise. Offense-Defense theory specifically looks at the probability of war related to the dominance of the offense or defense in terms of a state's military capabilities. It hypothesizes that a world with a perceived offense dominance leads to a greatly likelihood of war. When offense is dominant, states have a powerful incentive to be the first to strike an opponent. A lack of information amongst actors in the international system, misperceptions and understanding about capabilities can falsely lead states down a path to a war they otherwise may not have entered. Moreover, a power shift between a declining and rising state can create a window of time between the two and create an increased likelihood of war during that time-frame. Lastly, false optimism and a states perception about the cost of war can greatly increase or decrease the probability of war occurring. Offense-defense theory can be used to understand conflict in the realm of international politics. Starting with offense dominance and ending with false optimism, I will examine each of the arguments in turn and take a look at how offense dominance increases the vulnerabilities of the security dilemma.
            Offense dominance theory focuses on the military dominance of the offense or defense during a certain period of time. The fact that offense is dominant can be real or perceived, however, it still has the same profound implications regarding the onset of conflict. Offense dominance implies that conquest of another country will be relatively easy and others are vulnerable to being attacked. Put another way, “offense-defense balance [can be defined] in terms of the ease of taking territory compared with the ease of holding territory when attacked” (Jervis 1978). Knowing this, war becomes more likely in a world that believes offense is more dominant on the battlefield. A number of factors lead to this conclusion, among them that states that view offense as dominant are less likely to use diplomatic means, negotiate, or act cooperatively with other states (Van Evera 2013:121). This creates an environment where disputes are not likely to be resolved through diplomatic channels and are therefore more likely to be decided in a military engagement. Also, states will behave more secretly about defenses and foreign policy, creating a situation in which there is even less information available. States become even more secretive because any information that the enemy can gain about its capabilities is harmful to its security. The secrecy caused by the outcome of less diplomacy and less communication brings even more miscalculations and mistrust amongst states. This fear and insecurity that offense dominance creates within states leads to an increased likelihood of expansion in order for the states to feel more secure and to resist other actors expanding very aggressively (Van Evera 2013:119). A state may feel it necessary to try to expand its borders to a more defensive perimeter that is easier to defense in order to feel more secure. Furthermore, offense dominance means that the first side to mobilize or attack first will have a greater advantage, a perceived first strike advantage, which greatly increases the incentive for a state to strike first. States feel that if they do not strike first they are giving up a huge advantage that can be fatal to any war that may break out. It can also lead to wars that neither side actually intended on, but due to a lack of information and the first strike advantage can occur… “Even if a state does not see starting a war as beneficial, it might suspect that an opponent, basing its calculus on the idea that a first strike might increase its chances of victory, would be tempted to strike first” (Maoz 1990). Often, this can lead to conflict spirals between states that cannot determine the intentions of the each other. A conflict spiral is explained further, “when offense has the advantage… arms races will be intense because when one country adds forces, its adversary will have to make a larger addition to restore its ability to defend” (Glaser 1997). So, each side is fearful of the other side attacking and adds to its capabilities to one up the other side, attempting to feel more secure. In other words, “insecurity and fear intensify as an arms race develops until finally it spirals out of control and some incident touches off a war no one really wanted but that all felt powerless to prevent” (Lamb 1988). Ultimately, due to a lack of information coupled with a state’s fear of security there is an increased probability of a dispute turning into a conflict spiral because of the security dilemma. In this way, an international environment in which offense has a advantage greater relative to defense, there is an increased likelihood of war. States have every incentive to work in secrecy, not engage in diplomacy, and strike first in a conflict. In this way, offense advantage worsens the vulnerabilities of the conflict spiral.
            Power transitions and the window logic that can accompany these shifts become heightened by an offense dominance world by increasing the incentive of a preventive war. A power transition occurs when a rising state and a powerful declining state start having their relative capabilities on a collision course, the rising state increasing and the declining state losing capabilities. The important thing to focus on during a power transition is on whether or not the rising power is satisfied or dissatisfied with the status quo. Another point, if the transition happens to occur rapidly, the dominant power may not have enough time to make enough concessions to satisfy the challenger (Packer Notes 2013). In a world of offense dominance, the risk of conflict during a transition increases due to the notion of a first strike advantage. The declining state cannot be sure about the intentions of the rising state, whether the rising state has limited aims or is trying to change the status quo. Therefore, the declining state faces a major choice. It has a great incentive to launch preventive war, which means it would choose to fight now before the state loses even more relative capabilities to the rising power (Packer Notes 2013). Due to the nature of a first strike advantage, the declining state may feel forced into a preventive war because it can never be truly sure of the intentions of the rising state, and the rising power will eventually have more capabilities than the declining state if it waits to strike. The longer the declining state waits to strike, the more disadvantaged it becomes if a war is to break out. This line of thinking creates windows of opportunity, or window logic, a time frame when a breakout of war in a power transition is more likely. The thought of a preventive war can be dated all the back to the Peloponnesian War, a simple thought of, “we must fight before we are weaker” (Van Evera, 2013; 76). The basic theory behind window logic is that a declining state in a power transition has a certain window of time that it can attack the rising power before the rising power becomes too strong or is able to launch its own strike. Therefore, the declining state adopts much more risky policies and the chance of a conflict breaking out during the window is heightened. A current real world example of the idea is Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The window of opportunity is the finite time that Israel has to strike those facilities before it becomes unfeaseable. As Iran inches closer to nuclear proliferation, the window begins to tighten and Israel may become more reckless or have an increased probability to strike. The approaching deadline of a nuclear power Iran may force Israel's hand in a short time frame. However, once Iran proliferates, the window closes and Israel would be hard tested to strike another nuclear power, and both sides understand this notion. Diplomacy may also takes a hit during a window of opportunity because windows lower the credibility of threats and offers. A declining state can never be sure if the rising state will keep its word once the rising state is in a more powerful position, by that time it is too late for the declining state to win a war. In other words, “declining powers cannot trust rising powers offers, because rising powers know the declining power cannot enforce the agreement later” (Van Evera, 2013; 80). This line of thinking leads one to believe that under the conditions of a power transition as well as an offense dominated world, there is going to be an increased likelihood of war.
            Another argument that can lead to an onset of war that otherwise may not occur is the idea of false optimism, that is leaders of a state falsely believing that they will win the war, or underestimating the cost of war. Let us start with a state that falsely believes they will win the war. This belief will cause states to be bolder when a crisis occurs and more likely to consider their adversary to be bluffing. A lack of information is crucial to this argument because when both sides have a misperception about the relative capabilities, the likelihood of war in order for the sides to prove they are right is more likely when neither knows for sure who is the strongest. Put another way, “If states agree on their relative power, this test is unnecessary; but if they disagree, a contest of arms can offer the only way to persuade the weaker side that it is the weaker and must concede” (Van Evera, 2013:15). Ultimately, it is impossible for a leader to correctly judge relative capabilities and the definitive test is war. When states misjudge the capabilities of their opponent or whether they believe the opponent will give in or is bluffing, leads to a greater likelihood of war. This is especially true if the common perception is that there is an offense-advantage in striking first, which leads states to believe that war can be over quickly. If the war is quicker, the war is presumed to be less costly and thus more feasible for a state to partake in. A government will shy away from wars that it believes will be costly but more likely to engage in a conflict that it believes will be quick and easy to win. Van Evera provides multiple examples of a false belief in a quick war, one of which being World War One, when Germany expected to crush France in four weeks and “finish off the rest of the Triple Entente in four months” (Van Evera, 2013:19). However, this can also work in the opposite way if a state is overly worried about defeat. As we stated about offense dominance and the security dilemma, if one state enhances its capabilities another state may feel threatened by this action. This false fear of defeat can lead states, “to launch a preemptive attack if they think they can avert defeat only by striking first, or to launch a preventive war if they think they can avert later defeat only by striking at the peak of their power” (Van Evera, 2013;15). Ultimately, false optimism and false fears of defeat are both likely to increase the chance of conflict between states. Under these conditions, states make miscalculations and falsely believe that they can win a war quick and effectively, leading to bold decision making and ultimately more conflict.
            In conclusion, offense-defense theory offers some interesting insight into why some conflicts occur and why some states may go to war when neither side actually wants war in the first place. Overall, it is important to keep the security dilemma in mind when understanding offense-defense theory because states may feel less secure when another state increases its capabilities. Offense dominance creates an environment that may worsen the security dilemma by having incentives that reward secrecy, first strike advantages, and create windows under which states must act.  War becomes much more likely when there is an environment of offense dominance, exacerbating many factors that contribute to conflict.


Glaser, C. L. (1997). The security dilemma revisited. World Politics50, 171-201.

Jervis, R. (1978). Cooperation under the security dilemma. World politics,30(02), 167-214.

Lamb, C. (1988). How to think about arms control, disarmament, and defense. Prentice Hall.

Maoz, Z. (1990). Paradoxes of war: On the art of national self-entrapment (p. 66). Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Packer Notes. Offense-Defense. 2013.

Van Evera, S. (2013). Causes of war: Power and the roots of conflict. Cornell University Press.


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